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Tucson Family Creates a Legacy of Jewelry as Wearable Art

A sterling silver and Burnham turquoise (from a Nevada mine)

In Tucson, three generations of the Patania family have created a legacy of jewelry as art.

Behind his Queen Anne bungalow in a historic Tucson neighborhood, Frank Patania Jr. unlocks the door to his clapboard workshop, revealing a bench filled with pliers, mandrels, hammers and scraps of silver. Next to the workshop, an adobe building houses his larger workbench, crowded with buffing equipment and trays of beads and stones. Across town, son Sam Patania’s workshop is more modern, located off his townhome’s kitchen and dotted with gems and stones, notes, tools and scraps of precious metals. 

A few miles and a generation apart, the Patanias carry on a family tradition of crafting jewelry as sculpture, each creating his own line of elegant production pieces as well as one-of-a-kind items that are coveted by collectors and handed down in families.

“Frank Jr. and Sam are true artists,” says art dealer John Reyes, who included Frank Jr.’s work in a 2018 exhibition at The Gallery at Mountain Shadows, where he was the curator. “Their work is a bit under the radar, but the first time I saw their jewelry, I was blown away.”

While distinct in styles—Frank Jr.’s work in silver and stones such as turquoise and coral is bold and architectural, while Sam crafts in silver, gold, platinum and a variety of gemstones in a fluid, organic fashion—both Patanias carry on the influence of family patriarch Frank Patania Sr., Frank Jr.’s father.

Born in Italy in 1899, Frank Sr. apprenticed to a goldsmith at the tender age of 6, then emigrated with his family to New York when he was 10. There, he also worked as a goldsmith, but a bout of tuberculosis led him to recuperate in Santa Fe. Rather than returning to New York, Frank Sr. found Santa Fe’s artistic, bohemian milieu intoxicating. He opened his Thunderbird Curios shop on the plaza in 1927, selling Indian crafts and his own jewelry. “My father was intrigued by Native American jewelry making and melded that with his more traditional background,” says Frank Jr. “In fact, he hired and trained many Native American silversmiths who went on to have their own careers.”

1. An 18-karat gold pendant by Sam Patania for the Mark Sublette Collection at Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson includes Bisbee turquoise and spiny oyster beads. 2. Frank Patania Jr.’s cast bronze and coral belt buckle was crafted in 1970. 3. A concho belt by Frank Patania Sr. dating to the 1950s is made with Nevada turquoise and silver. 4. Frank Patania Sr.’s sterling silver and Mediterranean coral cuff is a statement piece believed to have been crafted in the mid-1950s. 

But while Santa Fe was a tourism hot spot during the summer in the 1920s and ’30s, it emptied out in colder months. As well as being an artist, Frank Sr. was a sharp businessman. He opened a second Thunderbird shop in downtown Tucson, next to the Fox Theatre, in 1937, catering to sun worshippers who came to the desert in winter.

Born in 1932 as the middle child of three, Frank Jr. was raised largely in Tucson and came to take over the business. “From the beginning, I knew I was destined to work with my father,” he says. “My dad taught me just like any apprentice. It was boring and exacting, but it gave me the discipline to eventually work on my own designs properly.” After graduating from the University of Arizona and a stint in the military, Frank Jr. devoted himself full time to the shop.

1. Frank Patania Jr. checks a design at his workbench in Tucson. 2. A 14-karat gold and Sleeping Beauty turquoise (from a Kingman mine) bead necklace is a recent work by Frank Jr. 3. Frank Jr.’s sculptural silver and smokey topaz cuff dates to 1985. All pieces from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson.

“I took a ceramics class, read books on contemporary art and studied Japanese architecture,” says Frank Jr. of his influences. “I started winning awards for my jewelry and was invited to exhibit at different shows.” In addition to creating his own production line of jewelry, Frank Jr. made one-of-a-kind pieces, including many ecclesiastical commissions for churches, for which he crafted unique chalices, candlesticks, crosses and other items. “I did all the work myself, all of the fabrication,” he says. “My hallmark is on every piece.”

Though Sam never really knew his grandfather—Frank Sr. died in 1964 when Sam was 3 years old—he follows in the family footsteps. “I started working at the shop when I was 16,” Sam recalls. “I learned technique, but I wasn’t initially invited to do designs.” After studying at UA, Sam began to forge his own path. “I didn’t want to design like my grandfather or father, but I like to think that I mix their influences.”

Early on, Sam experimented with gold and platinum in addition to silver and incorporates colored stones in most of his pieces. “I grew up going to Tucson’s gem show,” he explains. “I’m also using turquoise that my grandfather acquired back in the 1950s.”

Like his grandfather, Sam is a pragmatist when it comes to the business of jewelry. “There’s no room for sentimentality, even when I make a one-of-a-kind piece. When I finish, I am so ready for someone to appreciate it enough to buy it. That’s my validation.”

The Patanias have also had their critical validation. Art historian Joanne Stuhr organized a 1999 retrospective of their work at the Tucson Museum of Art, where she served as chief curator. “We included about 100 pieces from all three generations, along with historic photos and text,” recalls Stuhr of the three-month-long exhibition. “It brought attention to their work, particularly Sam’s, as he was just emerging in his art at the time. More serious collectors began paying attention to the Patanias. You could see that the level of their craftsmanship was just amazing.”

The Tucson exhibit caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, which purchased a bracelet from each of the Patanias for its permanent collection.
Next spring, Tucson authors Pat Messier and Kim Messier will release a yet-to-be-named book on the three generations of Patanias through Schiffer Publishing. The mother-daughter duo, experts in Southwestern and Native American arts, were asked by Sam to organize the book, which includes more than 300 photographs and chapters on each Patania. “It was a dream project,” Pat says. “Theirs is a fascinating story, and the work is important art.”

1. An organically shaped belt buckle by Sam Patania is made of silver and Bisbee turquoise. 2. Sam Patania at his Tucson workbench. 3. The 18-karat gold and Candelaria turquoise (from a Nevada mine) necklace by Sam Patania was crafted in 2001. 4. Sam Patania’s silver and amethyst cuff was designed in 2010 and is from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery. 5. The sterling silver “Georgia” cuff was originally designed by Frank Patania Sr. in 1930 and was a favorite of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

While the Thunderbird shops are long gone, and Frank Jr. has slowed down his jewelry making, the Patanias’ pieces are still available. Sam sells his work through his website (and offers some vintage pieces by his grandfather and father) and boutiques. He’s also collaborated with Tucson gallery owner Mark Sublette of the Medicine Man Gallery on a special line of jewelry, which Sublette sells in his gallery and online.

Sublette, who specializes in antique, vintage and modern Native American and Southwestern art, is a champion of the Patanias’ work. “Being well-dressed in Tucson requires wearing some Patania jewelry,” says Sublette, who has been selling vintage Patania pieces for years—acquired from collectors and estates—to astute clients as far away as Japan and Germany. He even has an entire display case dedicated to their work. Pricing? Anywhere from $100 to $35,000 for important pieces, he says. “They are, after all, influential artists.”

The Patania influence may not end with Sam, who is 60. There could be a fourth generation of jewelry artists. “My son Marco has shown interest in the work,” Sam says. “I’m sure his work would be different from ours. We’ll see.”

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